The British Syrian Society’s workshop at the University of Damascus focused on the ramifications of the war in Syria with the aim of providing an exchange of views on the underlying reasons for the conflict and the means by which to resolve it. The workshop began with a background to the war before moving on to discuss Syrian foreign relations during the crisis. A panel was then set up to focus on the media narrative since 2011. It was followed by a presentation on the reconciliation process backed up by facts and figures. The effects of sanctions on the lives of ordinary Syrians were also discussed at length. Attention was then directed to the role of civil society during the conflict with much of the focus covering rehabilitation, reconstruction, education and cultural heritage.
The first topic of discussion included the origins of the crisis in Syria and the subsequent response of the Syrian government. During this session, it was made clear that a number of security personnel were martyred very early on as the crisis erupted in Daraa, a fact that is generally overlooked by the West and the media. On the political front, the government responded by lifting the State of Emergency, introducing legislative reforms, initiating a national dialogue, granting nationality to stateless Kurds and issuing general amnesties.
The focus of the discussions was then redirected towards the response of Western countries such as the US, the UK and France, which sought regime change and getting President Bashar Al-Assad to step down. The themes of regime change and legitimacy featured many times throughout the workshop. A lot of attention focused on the media’s role in promoting the West’s narrative in this respect.
Two significant lessons can be drawn from the media’s coverage of the Syrian conflict. The first is that after nearly six years into the crisis, Syria should have created its own media platform to counter the Western narrative. The second is that the Syrian government should have provided better media access to Western journalists in order to get their story across in the press. Otherwise, restrictions give the impression that the government has something to hide.
There was a lot of discussion about the role of armed groups, terrorists and extremists in the Syrian conflict and the way foreign backers used these groups to realize their specific objectives. On the part of regional powers, the focus was set on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The workshop alluded to the fact that Turkey had to literally invade Syria because its proxies were unable to accomplish the mission set out for them.
As for Europe, there appeared to be a consensus among the participants that European leaders had failed in their dealings on Syria and had instead adopted positions that left their countries vulnerable to terrorism at home. Moreover, the Syrian government expressed its dismay at the fact that major powers such as the UK had cut off counter-terrorism intelligence cooperation when it had in fact proved to be very helpful in the past.
Despite the internal and regional interests engulfing the war in Syria, the workshop discussed how the conflict had quickly turned into a superpower chess game between the US and Russia. From the Syrian government’s point of view, the US is merely seeking to safeguard Israel’s interests and guarantee its security by attempting to Balkanize the region.
As for Russia, the game is closer to home and it is leading a genuine war against international terrorism, which will not be confined to Syria’s borders. The big question was why the US and its coalition refuse to cooperate with Russia if they are serious about fighting the same terrorists? A possible answer was that the US and its allies are using all the armed groups regardless of whether they are ISIS or Jabhat Al-Nusra (recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham) to fulfill their own agendas in Syria.
An entire presentation was dedicated to the story of Aleppo and how fighters entered the city with the goal “to transfer the revolution to Aleppo by force”. Evidence of the destruction and looting of factories along with images of extremist fighters holed up in the city were presented to the participants. Emphasis was placed on the role played by Turkey, which was accused of spearheading the campaign by militants to attack Aleppo. Aleppo is considered a regional hub because of its geopolitical strategic location that connects the coastal area to the eastern region. Due to its status, Aleppo represents a prized possession to the armed groups since it can be used as a staging ground to control other areas. The workshop heard how the Syrian government has proposed several ceasefires and offered safe passages to the militants in order to get them out of Aleppo and end the conflict in the city.
The harsh and detrimental effects of international sanctions were also covered extensively in the workshop. It was shown how banking restrictions and a prohibition on US Dollar transactions have dramatically increased the operating costs for Syrian businesses, which in turn have passed on those expenses to ordinary Syrian consumers. Both imports and exports have been severely affected as a result of political decisions taken by the US, the EU and Syria’s neighbours. It was explained that while Europe has in theory imposed selective sanctions, they are in practice having detrimental effects on the importation of food and medicinal products. The resulting shortages, inflation and currency depreciation have forced many entrepreneurs and ordinary Syrians to emigrate from a country where 80% of the economy used to rely on small and medium-sized enterprises and industries.
Such economic restrictions have become a breeding ground for more corruption as smuggling and war profiteering become the norm. The informal economy has grown significantly and incorporating it back into the formal economy will be a challenge.
A repeated appeal to ease sanctions that indiscriminately affect the population was made throughout the workshop. A number of suggestions were put forward in this respect. For instance, one speaker advocated the establishment of banking and payment corridors into Syria. At the same time, the entry of commodities into the Syrian market should be guaranteed. Another important recommendation was to identify a set of particular commodities whose importation into Syria should not be affected by the sanctions. Rather than restrict transactions, it would be preferable to monitor them. The need to take tangible steps to help small businesses survive in the current economic climate was also emphasized.
The workshop also discussed the importance of having a wider debate within the EU as to whether the sanctions imposed on Syria are actually necessary. It was noted that while Moscow is voicing concerns in international forums about the sanctions imposed on Syria, Russia is itself also subject to sanctions. It was mentioned that India and Pakistan, who maintain friendly relations with Syria, can also air these concerns on behalf of the Syrian people.
The means by which the conflict in Syria can be resolved hinge on appreciating the origins of the crisis and correctly recognizing the factors that will prompt the external players to end the conflict. Once that has been realized, there will be an opportunity to effectively implement a political process and pursue reconciliation efforts on a larger scale.
The workshop looked into how the political track could help end the conflict. The Syrian government continues to reiterate President Al-Assad’s 2013 plan that calls for a broad and representative national unity government comprised of members from the current government, opposition figures and independents. The new government would then oversee constitutional reform followed by a referendum and then elections.
In the meantime, the Ministry of National Reconciliation is pursuing local reconciliations in various regions across the country. It is overseeing the resumption of public services to the liberated areas and settling the status of fighters willing to lay down their arms. One speaker promoted the role of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) in working towards post-conflict peace consolidation. He further clarified that without reconstruction and economic prosperity, de-radicalization and hence reconciliation would be difficult to attain.
Although the war has not ended, rehabilitation and reconstruction have started albeit on a small scale. The Higher Relief Committee along with other public bodies, NGOs and UN aid agencies are spearheading rehabilitation efforts through the provision of public services in the liberated areas. Such services, which are in most cases provided directly by the government, form an integral part of the reconciliation process.
The question of how Syria’s reconstruction will be financed seems to rest on three possible outcomes of how the conflict may end. Syria will not be able to rely on itself unless its expatriate communities return and invest in their country. The resources could alternatively come from friendly countries that have already started setting up investment funds for this purpose. The last and by far the most favourable option would be for the conflict to end in a manner agreeable to all members of the international community who in turn will finance the costs of reconstruction.
One subject of key interest that arose in the workshop was the future role of the Syrian Army. Participants were intrigued to learn that there is a general consensus among a number of policymakers in the West that the Syrian Army must remain constituted in its current form. The Army is considered to be a strategic pillar of the regional security order and the most important institution in the state. There is also an emerging realization that the Syrian Army must prevail in the conflict in order to lead the reconciliation process because there is no other viable alternative.
One of the most overlooked subjects in the media but given a great deal of attention at the workshop was education. A number of facts and figures were presented to highlight the plight of Syria’s children, whose need for an education must be urgently addressed to prevent them from becoming a lost generation. The fear is that the generation driving Syria forward will be mentally scarred by the horrors of this tragic conflict. The harsh fact is that poverty forces children to drop out of schools in order to provide a living for their families. Poverty also results in an upsurge in crime, prostitution and radicalization.
The workshop drew to a close with a presentation on the main challenges facing Syria’s archaeological heritage. They include premeditated destruction, nearby clashes, illegal excavations and the smuggling of artifacts. While the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) at the Ministry of Culture is carrying out emergency restoration work at present, it is looking to cooperate with international organizations such as UNESCO to assist in a complete restoration programme once the conflict ends. Moreover, the DGAM has been in regular contact with INTERPOL throughout the conflict to retrieve stolen artifacts.
The workshop produced a number of important and wide-ranging conclusions. Firstly, the government was urged to create its own media platform, which should facilitate greater media access into the country. Moreover, international cooperation and internal reconciliation through dialogue were regarded as key to pursuing a political track to end the war as long as there is a US-Russian agreement. Trust between the people and the state can be restored to a certain extent by the provision of public services in the liberated areas. While these components are essential, they will only allow the conditions for reconstruction to be successful as long as there is a lifting of international sanctions. Furthermore, a substantial emphasis on restoring the education system will give Syria’s children a chance to develop and shape a promising future for their country. All of these objectives will need to be accomplished while encouraging Syrian expatriate communities to return to their country. Finally, Syria’s cultural heritage, which has been subjected to a significant level of damage during the conflict, will need to undergo a major restoration process.
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